The Inciting Incident & the Key Event

The second beat of Act I is the inciting incident. Good storytelling inextricably ties it to the key event.

We are familiar with the word incite and how it is used in a sentence: the murder of twelve-year-old Kenny Barnard by a police officer incited a riot.

Here’s how Merriam Webster defines incite: “to move to action: stir up: spur on: urge on.” Note, these words are verbs.

We can conclude that some action caused an incident or event (I’ll use these interchangeably without referencing the differences). Kenny’s murder caused the riot. The riot is an event. In sum, an inciting incident is an event that triggers the story. All stories have to get started; remember, all stories have a beginning, a middle, and an end. The trigger is like a stick of dynamite. The event happens. It’s an explosion. Repercussions follow.

K.M. Weiland describes the inciting incident “as being the moment when the story ‘officially’ begins and the character’s life is forever changed.”

Of course, our trigger doesn’t have to be loud. It might not seem all that powerful. It could be as simple as Lee finding his deceased wife’s diary (taken from my current work in progress).

As expected, there is disagreement among writing experts as to various aspects of the inciting incident. What is it? Is it the hook? Is it the first plot Point? Where does it belong? Is it the same thing as the key event? And, on and on. And, yes, I have my own opinions.

I like this oft-cited example taken from crime fiction. A murder takes place. This is the inciting incident, the trigger, the event that gets the story rolling. Later, maybe the next scene, the victim’s sister hires private eye Connor Ford to investigate the crime. The latter is the key event. It’s the glue that connects the protagonist to the inciting incident. Simply put, there is no need for the key event without the inciting incident. The sister doesn’t need Connor Ford if her brother is not killed.

Again, Weiland (citing Syd Field’s Screenplay) provides clarity in defining these terms: “the inciting incident… sets the story in motion… [while] the key incident [is] what the story is about, and draws the main character into the story line.” This ‘drawing’ essentially forbids the protagonist from turning away. He cannot, not, go on this journey (not necessarily a physical journey).

“Robert McKee says humans naturally seek comfort and stability. Without an inciting incident that disrupts their comfort, they won’t enter into a story. They have to get fired from their job or be forced to sign up for a marathon. A ring has to be purchased. A home has to be sold. The character has to jump into the story, into the discomfort and the fear, otherwise the story will never happen.”

Donald Miller

Don’t think the inciting incident is always as tidy as my Connor Ford example. In fact, our trigger might come before our story, before our beginning. For example: what if Kenny’s murder took place fifteen years earlier when his son Kent was just a baby? Now, in our story, Kent has a schoolyard fight with the police officer’s son over the fifteen year old murder. This fight is the glue, the key event, what connects our current story’s protagonist (Kent) to the journey he’ll travel for the next 3-400 pages of our novel.

An inciting incident isn’t always logical, it’s not always predictable. Often, it is just a random or chance event, just a coincidence. No matter how it arises, there is a predictable element (not always, but mostly). The inciting incident creates or reveals a problem for the protagonist that transforms his normal self.

This quote from Masterclass says it well: “Make your inciting action cause a noticeable shift in your character. A compelling inciting action will make your character take actions [he] would not have otherwise. In The Fugitive TV series, Dr. Richard Kimble loses his wife to murder and, worse still is accused of that murder. These traumatic events change Kimble, and they launch him onto a quest so compelling that it sustained four full seasons of television.”

H.R. D’Costa, creator of, says the inciting incident has four key characteristics:
1) it’s passive;
2) it jolts the hero out of his everyday world;
3) it’s personal; and,
4) it’s causally linked to the first act break.
If you want to go much deeper, read her writing guide, Inciting Incident. You can purchase it here in ebook format:

Let’s end with a point of clarification. I’ve revealed this indirectly, but it’s important to see clearly. The inciting incident and the key event have a cause-and-effect relationship. The inciting incident causes the key event. Or, the key event results from the inciting incident. The killing of Kenny Barnard caused the riot.

Initially, I didn’t identify a protagonist, and here I’m referring to the murder taking place inside our current story. I’m sure you can see some possibilities for our protagonist. Maybe it is the police chief. Maybe it is Kevin, Kenny’s twin brother. The point here is the causal relationship.

In fact, this is a critical characteristic for the novel. Our readers look for causation. A causes B. B causes C, and on and on. Of course, our reader may be wrong, but causality is imperative. Few readers will spend time with a story that is simply multiple, “and then this happens.”

Cause and effect, it all starts with our inciting incident and key event.

Next week, we’ll look at the First Plot Point.

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The Hook

Last week I provided an overview of story structure and the many models available to use in constructing a novel. I listed the components of the Three-Act structure and promised to describe each component in future blog posts.

Act I consumes the first 25% of the novel and reveals our protagonist in his ordinary world doing the things he normally does. These early scenes provide an opportunity to reveal the protagonist’s personality and inner thought life, including his beliefs and needs.

We learn he is to some degree dissatisfied with his life, or something happens to create a problem or some sort of imbalance. Properly constructed and illustrated, this dissatisfaction or issue-spawning event, triggers our readers’ curiosity.

Act I is comprised of three story beats, the Hook, the Inciting Incident, and the First Plot Point. Let’s start at the beginning with the Hook.

It’s highly improbable you’ll catch a fish without a hook. It’s the same with readers. Both species have to be captivated by something alluring, or they will wander off. Or, God forbid, they reach for another book in their TBR (to be read) pile. Yes, fish read books too.

While fish-hooks are made of high carbon or stainless steel, reader-hooks require something much stronger— emotion. Thus, the first thing a novelist has to do is create an emotional response in his reader.

Here’s a visual example I found at Beemgee, my favorite story development tool: “The famous screenwriter William Goldman describes a scene in a detective movie he wrote, in which Paul Newman[] in the first seconds of the film wakes up in his office bleary-eyed, picks a used coffee filter out of the dustbin and pours hot water through it, because he has no fresh coffee.”

The article writer at gave his analysis: “This simple action tells a lot about the protagonist without any dialog, and makes the audience go ‘oooh yuch’. Emotional response achieved.”

In sum, our hook needs to accomplish three things: 1) it must introduce our protagonist; 2) it must reveal a representative picture of his everyday life; and 3), it must show him dealing with something that troubles him and conflicts with his normal world. All three of these, combined, offer only one conclusion: to some degree, our protagonist is on a trajectory of change, where his life cannot stay as it is. And, as we all know, change doesn’t come without conflict.

Here’s an example I borrowed from “In The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, Katniss is introduced as a responsible, determined teenager who hunts illegally to feed her family, which suffers under the rule of the Capitol.”

Stop a minute and reread this example. Use your imagination to visualize what’s coming, what conflict (s) may arise in this story. First, consider the novel’s title. I suspect hunger is going to be important, as hunting food is one task Katniss, the protagonist, spends her ordinary world-time doing. What else do we learn about Katniss? I suspect she’s not the typical teenager I know (not to knock teenagers). Katniss is “responsible, determined.” What about conflict? She hunts illegally. Talk about actual and potential conflict, and that doesn’t include thoughts about “the Capitol.”

Obviously, this is going to be a dystopian story. The genre I usually ignore, along with sci-fi, fantasy, and horror. But, truth is, Collins’ one-sentence logline, has me hooked. How about you? Confession: I’ve read the book and it’s fabulous. I encourage you to read it.

Here’s another way to look at the Hook. K.M. Weiland, of the website, writes, “stripped down to its lowest common denominator, the hook is nothing more or less than a question.” Actually, what Weiland proposes in order for our hook to grab readers and spark their curiosity is two questions: the first, general, the second, specific. In order, they are: “What’s going to happen?” and, as an example from Jurassic Park by Michael Crichton, “What scary reptilian monster killed the worker?”

“The important thing to remember about presenting this opening question is that it cannot be vague. Readers have to understand enough about the situation to mentally form a specific question. What the heck is going on here? does not qualify as a good opening question.”

K. M. Weiland

Here’s my attempt to craft these two questions after considering my current work in progress. I hope my readers ask, “what’s going to happen?” after learning Yale law school professor, Lee Harding, receives an early Saturday morning call from his out-of-town in-laws offering to buy him breakfast, and requesting he help them with a legal problem back home in Alabama (Rachel, their daughter, Lee’s wife, committed suicide a year earlier).

Further, after reading my first chapter, I hope my readers ask, “did Rachel commit suicide because of her high school abortion, or her knowledge concerning the disappearance and presumed death of Lee’s best friend, both secrets she’s harbored for over 50 years?

Author and writing coach H.R. D’Costa ( deep in Story Outlines with her description and analysis of the hook. “A hook can be a lot of things. It comes in all shapes and sizes, such as: setting, character, origin of material, tone, title, book cover, reputation of the content creator, star power, word of mouth, [and] irony[.]”

Let’s look at character for example. D’Costa contends our protagonist can provide the necessary hook to grab and retain our readers. Of course, she’s not talking about a stick figure or a one-dimensional hero. Rather, our protagonist must be a life-like creation, in many ways like you and me, one with a mix of good and bad personality traits, one who struggles with external and internal issues. In essence, he’s a captivating individual, the type a reader would love to follow around for three or four hundred pages.

I don’t have time or space to explore each of D’Costa’s hook originators. However, if you want to go deeper with the Hook, I encourage you to buy Sizzling Story Outlines, noting particularly the section where D’Costa discusses use of multiple hooks to grab your reader.

I’ll end this post with a challenge. It involves a little reading. You are a reader aren’t you?

“If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time (or the tools) to write. Simple as that.”

Stephen King

Now, to that challenge. I encourage you to pull a novel from your shelf or open one on your Kindle. Start at the first page and read the first chapter. Determine if you are hooked, meaning, “I would like to continue reading to learn what happens next.” If you aren’t hooked, then repeat the process. Keep going until you are solidly hooked on a novel.

Once you are hooked, describe (preferably in writing), in a sentence or two, WHY you are hooked. See if your ‘WHY’ response includes something analogous to Weiland’s specific question she created from Michael Crichton’s Jurassic Park: “What scary reptilian monster killed the worker?”

Thank you for reading this post. I hope you enjoy this ironic hook:

“Do you want to keep your knee, young man?’

‘No’, I said.


‘I want it cut off,’ I said, ‘so I can wear a hook on it.”

Ernest Hemingway, A Farewell to Arms

What is story structure? An introduction

Whether you are a plotter, a pantser, or a plantser, a basic understanding of story structure is important.

Just like you shouldn’t start the construction of a house without a basic understanding of the required components (foundation, sub-floor, walls, electrical and plumbing systems, roof, exterior siding, etc.), you shouldn’t begin the construction of your novel without some base knowledge.

Just as a properly completed house begins with a blueprint, so does your story. Your home’s blueprint is not your home. Neither is your story structure your novel. This assumes you want to do more than simply string together scene after scene separated by two paltry words, “and then.”

So, what is story structure? In short, it is a framework for telling your story. The definition of ‘frame’ I like best for our context is, “a structure supporting or containing something.” Thus, story structure is the structure used to contain your story.

Famed author Jerry Jenkins says, “structure is to a story what the skeleton is to the human body.” Sounds important, right?

Like a human, a story has a framework.

This analogy doesn’t say it is impossible for a human body to exist without a skeleton, but for sure, this human would be unique, to the point one might wonder whether ‘it’ was a human at all. Structure gives story life, without it, we as readers might easily grow disinterested, bored, confused, and, sooner than later, throw the book in the trash.

Before I go any further, I propose a disclaimer. In this blog post you will learn only a tiny fraction about this almost limitless subject. Why? Because there’s no one answer; there’s many well developed structures for you to adopt to ‘contain’ your story. Here’s a few: Dean Koontz’s classic story structure, Freytag’s pyramid, In Medias Res, the hero’s journey, the 7-point story structure, Dan Harmon’s story circle, Randy Ingermanson’s Snowflake method, the Fichtean curve, James Scott Bell’s a disturbance and two doorways, and Save the Cat beat sheet. The list, and the names, are mind-boggling.

I’ve intentionally left out the Three Act Structure because it’s the one I use and am more familiar with. Until I was researching for this blog post, I had never heard of several from the above list, including Freytag’s pyramid, and the Fichtean curve.

Allegedly, Aristotle originated the three act structure. In his Poetics, the Greek philosopher Aristotle said, “A whole is what has a beginning and middle and end.” Although here, he was referring to a play, the same principle applies to storytelling no matter the form.

“In the first act you get your hero up a tree. The second act, you throw rocks at him. For the third act you let him down.”

George Abbott, American theater producer and director

Here is a list of the key components for each Act. Note, the percentages. These represent the portion of the story each Act contains.

Act I—The beginning (the setup); 25%
The hook;
The inciting incident;
The key event;
The first plot Point.

Act II—The middle (the confrontation); 50%
Since this Act contains half of the story, its broken into two parts (three, if you count the Midpoint).
Act IIA (reaction)

Midpoint (second plot Point)

Act IIB (action)
Third plot Point at end.

Act III—The ending (Resolution); 25%
Resolution (also called the Denouement)

“The beginning isn’t simply the first in a series of events, but the originating event of all that follows. The middle isn’t just the next event, but the story’s central struggle. And the ending isn’t just the last event, but the culminating event.”

Steven James, author and writer

You can see, there’s a lot here. In fact, many articles, even entire books, have been written on each of these components. So, there’s too much to cover today. However, I intend to address each of these in future posts.

Before I close, let’s try to apply the three act structure to our own lives. I’ll assume an average life expectancy of 80 years. It seems reasonable to break our lives into the following three stages (Acts?):

I. Youth (age 0 to age 20)
II. Adult (age 21 to age 60)
III. Senior (age 61 to age 80).

Youth is the setup. We are in our ordinary world before our journey begins. Something happens, let’s say around age 10, that significantly affects our lives. It could be a disease diagnosis (of us or a loved one). It could be the death of a loved one. It could be a disaster: the family farm went bankrupt; a school shooter permanently disables our sister in a school shooting. This is the inciting incident; it causes you or me to become a doctor, a soldier, a politician. This choice is the first plot Point and comes at the end of our youth.

The Adult stage is the longest of the three. It’s our forty years of confrontation. In effect, the first twenty years is a reaction to our choice to become, for example, a doctor. Then comes the Midpoint. We might label it more colloquially, the midlife crisis. For me, it was my ‘need’ to go to law school. This changed the trajectory of my life.

In the second half of the Adult stage, confrontation continues, with new obstacles and antagonists alongside some of the old ones. Then, a moment of victory, before the bottom falls out, mentally or physically. This is the lowest point of your life, when all seems hopeless. One writer calls it “the trough of hell.” I’ll leave this event or experience to your own imagination.

The Adult stage is over. We are now into the last quarter of our lives. You, me, and our fictional protagonist somehow bounces back. At least enough to battle our number one enemy, which can be internal or external. This is the climax and there’s no guarantee we will win. Some will, some won’t. As in fiction, we may or may not have a positive character arc (over the story/throughout life, you, me, and our protagonist are transformed into something better, say, a kinder, more loving person). As in story, sometimes we fail, our enemy defeats us, we become jaded, cynical, mean; thus, our character arc is negative.

Finally, there’s the end, our return to the ordinary world from which we began, although it’s never as we recall. Now, friends and family, those who remain, either love or loath, more or less. With our non-fictional story, like our fictional characters, we have created our own resolution. Our last days are great or greatly grievous.

I will refrain, but we could apply the three act structure more particularly. For example, doesn’t every adventure we’ve taken contain a beginning, a middle, and an end? If the barbecue restaurant adventure (or, the rental property adventure, or the short-sale of Apple stock adventure, or the bi-vocational preaching adventure, or the you-name-it adventure) hasn’t yet ended, will it? And, when? Or, are you only in the Youth stage?

Choosing the right structure to contain our stories is imperative. If we don’t, our stories will suffer. If we don’t, our stories will still ‘live’ in their own container, albeit, unstructured ones.

In my next post, we will look at ‘the hook.’

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